Label Love #56: Be With Records


Kylie Minogue, Letta Mbulu, The Streets, Nohelani Cypriano and Cassie: what do all of these artists have in common? It sounds like a strange joke doesn't it? Very little from a musical perspective some would argue.

However, since 2014 they have all appeared on the Be With label: the dynamic, London based imprint has been steadily reissuing music without the slightest care or regard for the social construct of genre or scene for two years now. Their outlook transcends what's 'cool' , 'trendy' , or 'relevant' and the music speaks for itself. Be With describes itself as follows: 

"Specialising in officially licensing and releasing vinyl records that are currently unavailable or never even received a vinyl release. Where they can, the label works with the artists to ensure they have as much input as they desire."

We caught up with Rob to talk shop.

 Can you tell us a little bit about the label and what the label's original blueprints were?

Yes, Be With is a vinyl-only record label, based in London. It was initially conceived as a reissue label but we quickly evolved to release output that never came out on vinyl. And now we’re moving on to select new releases that, if it weren’t for Be With stepping in, might not go beyond a hype digital release.

Essentially, Be With exists to ensure that good music is available on vinyl when it otherwise might be digital-only. Take, for example, our working with Swedish dream-pop / Balearic favourites Korallreven. They were a current act but their farewell single was not going to be on vinyl. Unless Be With did it. They approached me after we spoke around the time of our Cassie LP and asked if I'd like to do it. We went from there and it led to a special limited edition 12” Remix EP for Record Store Day including a stunning Peaking Lights Disco Dub.

One of the many hugely important elements for us is sound quality – how good the Be With vinyl sounds. I can’t tell you how many lovely looking ‘deluxe’ reissues I’ve bought from several well-regarded reissue labels that really let themselves down when you put the needle on the record. A lot of labels clearly don’t spend the extra time and money on properly mastering these audio parts for vinyl and, therefore, end up creating an inferior, cheap product.

So there’s great emphasis placed not only on the quality of the music we decide is deserving of a reissue but also on ensuring we use preeminent mastering engineers. The high quality of the vinyl itself is always a given too, as we always use the very best pressing plants and manufacturers. Of course, making sure that the titles are officially licensed through the original rights holders and that the artists get paid well is of the upmost importance too.

What sparked the idea and kicked it into gear?

I’ve always bought records and DJ'd from my early teens, whilst I worked in Piccadilly Records for the best part of my 20s. The label was borne out of a real frustration that my personal wantlist was growing out of control (and full of rare, prohibitively expensive records) and my favourite reissue labels weren’t necessarily putting out what I’d like them to be.

During my time at Piccadilly, a bunch of us spent days on end kicking suggestions around. So I’d been thinking for years about countless releases that needed to be available on vinyl; either as first-time vinyl releases (for previously CD/digital-only output) or as reissues. Original labels hadn’t the wherewithal to do it, reissue labels weren’t getting around to the ones I wanted and a lot of sought-after music was being devalued by bootlegs. So, one record at a time, I’m trying to address this.

I wasn’t particularly happy in my job at the time (in arts & culture marketing) so I asked myself, "Could I do this?" I figured one of us from the old gang should step up and see if it’s possible. I worked on it throughout 2012-2013 behind the scenes, setting everything up. I researched licensing repertoire to release and spoke to some contacts in the industry and everyone seemed to be cautiously optimistic. I thought that, seeing as my list of records I consider ripe for reissue stands at well over 1000, my chances of officially licensing a few and actually getting them out were not that slim.

What are some of the label's formative musical influences?

The label is a continuation of the broad tastes I have as a DJ. There are no guiding generic considerations and, for me, this approach is very freeing. It’s refreshing to do it this way and definitely keeps me interested and, I hope, others.

I’m confident that people will see the one discernable thread running through the label’s sound is good music. I grew up as a Hip-Hop DJ and then spent the best part of a decade at Piccadilly. So, because of the kaleidoscopic approach to music of that shop and the magpie nature of Rap music, I’ve always loved Funk, Deep Soul, 70s Rock in all its guises (Country-/ Folk- / Southern-), Disco, Boogie, Electro, House, Techno, perfect Pop – the list goes on.

What is the Be With manifesto and how has it changed since its inception?

Be With hasn’t emerged from an identifiable musical background, unlike more focused labels. Therefore, the challenge was to prove ourselves despite the lack of automatic cache that is bestowed upon you if you’re rooted in a scene. I’d rather be a label that is all over the place in styles and eras and artist profile. To me it’s more fun and more interesting and will help keep the label’s momentum going.

If there’s one driving idea behind the label it is the notion that record lovers need their favourite albums and singles on vinyl. Hence our tagline, ‘because you need it on vinyl’. It’s a sincere thought and is coming from an enthusiastic place. So, it’s about the format rather than genre; the direction is driven purely by the artists we want to see available and affordable again on vinyl. I think a strength of the label is that, if you follow us, you’ll never know what’s coming next; but if you trust us then you can be confident that it’ll be a great and necessary vinyl release. Nobody saw the Kylie release coming, for example. Some say it’s brave, others say it’s label suicide. To me, it keeps it interesting to be all over the place. It reflects my tastes and I’ll never release something I dislike, even if it could be a banker.

Is there a particular framework/concept you work to with the releases on the label?

There’s definitely an ethos, yeah. It has to be something I’d like on vinyl myself. In terms of style, it isn’t forced to align with previous Be With releases. It also has to feel like the right time to do it – there has to be some sense that it would sell beyond my friends and I. It has to be worth pressing, say, 500 copies in order to break even. There’s no point putting something out that is still readily available on vinyl, either.

So, having identified something I want to put out, the next step is to track down and then approach the rights holders. You can wait weeks, months or even years to either find them or get a response. If they are amenable, I’ll start negotiating with them over terms at that point. As others will say, this is the hardest part. It can be easy to go, "oh, that clearly needs a reissue", but then actually getting it approved and to the sign-off stage, that’s the real challenge, no doubt. You then need to be happy with the audio and artwork assets available, the length of time you have the license for, the territories involved, the numbers you are allowed to press, the access to the artist etc. There’s a huge amount to consider before you fully commit to releasing a reissue record which is probably overlooked by your average record buyer – hopefully they can appreciate all the effort that goes in to these labours of love!

How did the Letta Mbulu release come into existence?

It was just one of those huge records that was wanted by most everyone but the serious diggers fortunate enough to have found originals over the years. I’d forgotten all about it (having given up hope of finding it) and it wasn’t until a fan of Be With – Tom Williams – suggested we try to do it. And that’s something that also – I hope – sets us apart a bit from other reissue labels. We try to be very open and approachable – hopefully this spirit shines through in our social media interactions with our followers. I just wanted to aim to be a different kind of reissue label, not dictating what records from the past you should listen to but, rather, facilitate what you want to listen to. So we welcome followers who’d love to nominate records that deserve to be heard because, chances are, we want to hear them too. Our followers have wicked taste, to be honest, which is great. If anyone reading this has dream records that they’d love to see us license, please get in touch! If we get it done we send it to you for free.

From Tom’s suggestion, it was fairly straightforward. I knew it came out on CBS in South Africa so I approached Sony about it in 2013 and it finally got signed off around Christmas 2014. It was very exciting. Pre-orders went crazy for it, almost as much as our Cassie release. I knew it’d be popular but I didn’t know quite this much. We had a really special party with Sean P headlining at Brilliant Corners and old friends from Piccadilly days all playing together. Sean played 'Nomalizo' twice. The whole night was truly great and can be heard here.

The LP was mastered for vinyl by Simon Francis who also did our Nohelani Cypriano mastering. He came very highly recommended by Paul Murphy of Claremont 56 but I’ve actually known Si for about 10 years as we share a mutual best friend. It was nice to have Paul’s seal of approval on him though.

Some of your releases have been fairly bold! Kylie for example, what was the inspiration behind that one?

That was one of those records that I’d always wanted to own for a few tracks in particular – 'Put Yourself In My Place' is just perfect pop, to my mind. I was sat up late one night with Chris Stevenson (of Common Bar & Oi Polloi in Manchester fame) just throwing ideas about for leftfield reissue choices. We were talking about our mutual love for that mid-90s period of Kylie. So I pitched it to Sony last spring and – incredibly – they said "cool, do it"! So, we got right to work and Chris – who is a wonderful graphic designer as well as everything else he’s achieved – took on the artworking responsibility. Anyone who bought a copy remarked upon just how good it looked as a gatefold package. Si Francis also mastered it for vinyl too and did a brilliant job.

Also this particular release just speaks to my idea about having fun with the label. We were dubbed ‘mavericks’ by The Vinyl Factory for our ‘fuck the rules’ approach. Now, far be it from us to say that’s what we are, but we definitely do like to have fun with the releases we choose and when. For every undisputed classic (Leon, Ned, Letta, Eddie Hazel) there's been The Streets, Cassie, Kylie – records that make people who follow the label take a step back and be like 'whaaaa?' That's fun, to me at least. The roster is pretty diverse, even at just 13 LPs in. We’ve had vintage Soul, UK Garage/Rap, Laurel Canyon singer / songwriters, Americana, Californian electronics and African Boogie/Funk, big-budget R&B, spiritual jazz vocalists, P-Funk and even Hawaiian rare groove.

What has been the label’s happiest accident?

Hmmm, probably my man Scotty Coats commenting on a Ned Doheny Instagram picture a few years ago. He said that Ned was "his bud". I contacted Scotty – we had mutual friends – and from there he put me in touch with Ned. The rest I guess is history. We have officially done his first 3 classic LPs and brought him over for a mini-tour of some European cities last spring. We’re now lifelong friends!

I guess in a wider sense too, meeting so many more likeminded people in an organic fashion – just through doing this and receiving the support and goodwill of my peers and heroes. It’s been a lot of fun so far.

What's the best thing you've heard this year?

Tough one – so much! The Bullion LP is amazing. I love the Black Peaches and their LP lived up to the huge expectations. Also the Wilson Tanner, the new Al Dobson Jr. LP, new Jessy Lanza LP and the Anderson .Paak LP.

Which record labels have been the most influential in your own musical journey?

Non-reissue wise, probably Stones Throw and, when it was untouchable in '97-'99, Rawkus.

In the small reissue record world, it’s the labels that have virtually a 100% strike rate but who seem also to be a nice bunch with it. Some reissue labels release great unheard music but are breathtakingly obnoxious in real life – that’s a shame. I won’t name names! But the ones that do it well – Light In The Attic, Get On Down, Strut, Mr Bongo, Emotional Rescue, more recently Music From Memory, going further back Sundazed – these are good people who are in it for the right reasons.

If you could release any record from musical history, what would it be? Is there anything that you'd like done differently with the record?

I’ll keep this to reissues I wish we could’ve done, makes sense! Either the D’Angelo Voodoo reissue that LITA did or Diamond D’s Stunts Blunts & Hip Hop that Get On Down reissued a few years back.

If money was no object to the label what would you do with it or are you happy with the trajectory thus far?

More and more releases – as I mentioned before, there’s a list I’ve got somewhere with well over 1000 records that I consider ripe for a high quality, legitimate vinyl issue. Oh, and, get a proper office to work out of and store all the stock and hire some help to bounce ideas off and assist in the packing and shipping of all these records.

Upcoming in the world of Be With Records?

Well we have the Korallreven 12” and Autumn Defense debut both coming out this Saturday as RSD exclusives. So look out for those. Also, I’m excited to say that there’s two huge LPs currently in production that will be out in the summer – but I can’t say what just yet. Also a minimal/synth-wave classic that goes for £50-60 is getting a welcome reissue on 12”.

Visit the Be With site HERE. Follow Be With on Facebook HERE.